British Columbians are deeply concerned about the overdose crisis and want to see improved access to addiction treatment – but, faced with an unprecedented number of drug deaths in the province, they're also willing to consider more radical options such as the legalization of hard drugs.
Those are some of the findings of a new survey by the Mustel Group, conducted for the InnerChange Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit that supports research in mental health and addiction. The survey provides a snapshot of provincial attitudes on substance-use disorder, and which initiatives people are willing to support amid the province's worst overdose crisis on record. It's expected that more than 800 people will have died of illicit drug overdoses by year's end; health and justice officials, politicians and activists have called for a broad range of remedies from increasing the number of treatment beds to legalization.
InnerChange chair Marco Romero says the survey shows British Columbians possess high levels of awareness, concern and desire for action.
"I was heartened by the level of awareness and support for better, and more, services," he said.
The survey found that 84 per cent of respondents are either moderately or extremely concerned about the fentanyl-driven overdose crisis – and 87 per cent considered, as either a medium or high priority, developing or adjusting regulations and programs to address it.
Three-quarters supported this approach even if it meant health-care costs would go up. The City of Vancouver recently approved an additional 0.5-per-cent property tax to help fund its response to the overdose crisis; the additional $3.5-million a year is earmarked for initiatives such as substance-abuse education for youth, additional staff for overdose management and a new medic unit for the city's Downtown Eastside fire hall.
The telephone survey of 500 British Columbians, selected from a panel generated through a random sample, was conducted in late November.
Of various services proposed, improved access to addiction treatment such as drug counselling and psychosocial care received the most backing, with 93 per cent of respondents supporting it.
But nearly two-thirds of respondents were also willing to consider the more contentious option of legalizing drugs beyond marijuana, a move that would disrupt the illicit drug market and flow of fentanyl through it. Of this 63 per cent, a quarter were completely in favour of the approach, and about a third said they could be convinced with more information on its risks and benefits. A further 17 per cent surveyed were not currently willing, but were interested in learning more.
The support is notable given the urgent calls for expanded treatment options during the overdose crisis. Heroin-assisted treatment (HAT), for example, is a proven second-line option for people who have failed repeatedly at traditional treatments such as methadone and suboxone – between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the total population on substitution therapy. Studies in both Canada and Europe have shown that those on HAT reported improved health and social reintegration and reduced illicit drug use and criminal activity.
About 85 people are currently on HAT at Vancouver's Crosstown Clinic, but regulatory hurdles prevent physicians from expanding the program, which B.C.'s Health Minister and Provincial Health Officer, and Vancouver's mayor, have all praised.
Mr. Romero said the survey provides compelling evidence that British Columbians are generally open-minded about adopting new approaches to resolve the province's worsening overdose crisis.
"Faced with the realization that drug addiction is firmly entrenched in Canada, and that it can affect virtually anyone, our society's knowledge and attitude have considerably evolved in recent years," he said. "Most of us now understand that addiction is a disease and that criminalization and prohibition have done very little to cure it."
As well, three-quarters of respondents (77 per cent) supported improved access to opioid substitution therapy and 60 per cent supported more supervised injection sites.
Among the survey's other findings: 85 per cent of respondents believe addiction is a disease but there are elements of choice for people who face addiction. One in five reported direct experience with addiction, a figure on par with the number of Canadians who experience mental-health problems in any given year. The number increases when including extended family or friends, with roughly two in five (41 per cent) saying they knew someone who had struggled with an addiction to illicit drugs.
"I was a little surprised at the extent to which people were personally touched," said InnerChange executive director Laura Tate. "That, to me, perhaps explains what the level of awareness is triggered by, or what helps raise that level of awareness."